Inigo S. Roces / Inigo S. Roces | June 22, 2018 12:12
A retro coupe in sheep's clothing
Where have all the coupes gone? Actually, they’re still around. Many of them now sport two extra doors, and if you’re willing to look past that blasphemy, you’ll find that low slung, stretched out, sporty driving feel is still there.
Like the term, ‘SUV,’ the term ‘coupe’ has been borrowed and re-appropriated to several new models that don’t strictly fit the conventional definition, i.e. two doors, frameless door windows, and a fastback profile. Mercedes-Benz first did so with the CLS coupe which was actually a sedan, then Audi with the A7 sport coupe, and more recently, BMW with its Gran Coupe suffix. With the practice more commonplace these days, we’re seeing more ‘coupes’ creeping in to new segments.
The new coupes
Yet shady marketing ploy aside, many of these four/five-door affronts to the car gods have made a conscious effort to live up to coupe standards, at least in some aspects of design and feel. The CLA ‘coupe’ serves as Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level sedan, slotted below the C Class, sporting a sleeker profile and with far more aggression in its styling. Some have called it the baby C-Class, but more accurately, it’s the largest A Class. The CLA after all is built upon the A Class platform, which now underpins all Mercedes models that end with ‘A’; A 180, GLA, CLA. The CL prefix stands for Coupe and Leicht (light coupe).
You have to applaud Mercedes for making the CL Classes quite distinct in the Mercedes lineup. They’re far more youthfully and creatively styled than the C, E, and S Classes, ensuring that the customers that gravitate toward them are the ones looking for something different. And different is what the CLA delivers from the broad mesh grille punctuated by hawk eye headlights, gaping lower intake (exclusive to the AMG), and raised hood lines. The side boasts of a concave body graphic like the AMG GT coupe, while the frameless doors give the parabolic cabin a clean look. Behind, the bulbous rear is cleverly broken by the cliff face trunk, while ducts on the sides of the bumper keep it from looking too dainty. AMG sport wheels add to the overall androgynous look of the car, and that may well be why it draws stares whether you like the styling or not.
An interior of homages
It’s inside where the ‘coupe-ness’ of the CLA really begins to manifest itself. The first of which is the frameless windows on the door, which, sets you in the mood. Take a seat on the corrugated cushion, bolstered seat, and steel pedals and hark back to Lancias or Alfa Romeos of the past. They also feature contrast red stitching. That retro vibe is carried on by the X-type air con vents last seen on the W123, 108 and 115 of the 70s. Then there’s the hooded dials with inset analog fuel and temp gauges. Lifted from more modern coupes are the flat-bottom steering wheel and electronic seat adjustment on the door. The rest of the dash is standard A Class fare with the high mount LCD and separate radio and climate control panels. If the buttons on the dash seem a bit confusing, the COMAND knob on the center mound provides much more intuitive control.
Despite the initial daunting appearance, it was far easier to acclimatize to the switches and controls inside with dials where they should be and a reduced number of buttons on the wheel. The brochure even says the entertainment system can fit some 20 CDs, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where. I simply stuck in a flash drive.
Small plant, big power
No start button here, the fob is still inserted to the dash and twisted to start. This brings to life its 1.6-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine that produces 124-PS and 200 Nm of torque. It is paired with a 7G-DCT (7-speed dual clutch) that drives the front wheels. Oddly enough, the car is put into gear with a steering-mounted stalk, much like old American automatics. Thankfully there are paddle shifters fitted for when opting to shift manually.
Like many drive-by-wire cars these days, it takes a bit of throttle pressure to get it rolling, then progressively less as it speeds up. New for this generation is the customizable drive modes. Unlike the typical Eco, Comfort and Sport universal settings, several aspects of the car (engine, steering, start-stop, and climate) can be set to different modes. I preferred the Eco engine and Sport steering the most, returning more accurate steering with high fuel efficiency. In this setting, the small size of the engine is only evident when trying to close up a gap in front of you in traffic. The dual clutch automatic was surprisingly smooth and nearly undetectable, returning 8.3 km/l in heavy traffic. Unfortunately, there’s little that can be done with the suspension, which is typical German taut and may be a bit uncomfortable on bad roads.
Get it in sport mode and the engine begins to feel much bigger than just 1.6-liters. It’s just initially sluggish from a standstill but response quickens above 40 km/h. The brochure says it can do a 0 - 100 km/h sprint in 9 seconds, though at times it feels quicker than that. It’s on more sparsely populated roads out of town where the car’s sporty nature can be truly enjoyed. Despite the front-wheel drive layout, the CLA feels fairly neutral when cornering, thanks to its lower stance and wide tires. Of course, expect the fuel consumption to drop to 6.0 km/l, but it’s a penalty more than made up for by the excitement.
It may be a four-door, but this car is perhaps best enjoyed by two at most. In one instance, I had to transport four adults advanced in their years and they had trouble getting in and out of the car and nearly poked their eyes on the unprotected windows. Another odd thing is the deeply recessed hood release that is nearly impossible to find without scalding yourself, especially after the car has been running for an hour or two.
Despite its odd form factor, the CLA is still very much a coupe in terms of drive and feel. Even some of the quirks of coupe ownership — like tight confines, challenging entry and egress, and claustrophobic rear seats — have been carried over. So too are the more enjoyable aspects like sharper handling, the low slung body, and sporty driving position. It’s made even more evident when in AMG trim.
It finds itself in a very narrow niche, geared towards the affluent that want all the trappings of a sports car minus the selfish stigma of a two-door; a luxurious but sporty sleeper. Any enthusiast of old sports cars and coupes will appreciate the clever details and homages. Indeed the styling is polarizing, but there’s no mistaking the undiluted sporty drive. While supplies last, Mercedes-Benz is offering it at a lowered price of PhP 2,890,000.